Sexism, Evangelicalism, And The Growing GOP Rift

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There’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump is tearing it wide open.

Did you notice, during last night’s Republican debate, how each candidate seemed to swing at Trump on questions of honesty and principle — and miss? It seems almost absurd. Trump is sleazy and amoral; how hard can it be to nail him on his hypocrisy?

The problem is that Trump’s supporters don’t care that he’s unprincipled and amoral. Trump is an avatar for — and caricature of — the capitalist class, specifically a certain breed of blowhard CEO-type that grows in abundance in the U.S. If you’ve ever waited tables, you’ve probably had someone just like him grab your ass and short your tip during a power lunch. He’s a guy who does business — some of my friends like to call him Business Brad — and he does whatever you need to do to keep the wheels greased. That’s what it means to do business.

So when Cruz and Rubio try to sling what they’re sure will be zingers — that Trump is a hypocrite who changes positions on issues like immigration to benefit his business interests, that he gives donations to Democrats as well as Republicans, etc. — Trump’s base shrugs. Sure he does. You gotta do business.

Cruz seemed sure his blows would land, and crestfallen when they didn’t. And no wonder. If Trump represents capital, Cruz represents the evangelical wing that’s controlled the party since the Reagan-era rise of the Moral Majority. That side of the party, which has weakened considerably since its zenith during George W. Bush’s rule, is the party’s most ideological wing. The evangelical GOP’s articles of faith on social issues have become party doctrine, not to be questioned; being anti-choice and anti-queer is synonymous with being Republican in a way that wasn’t true in the 1970s or even the 1980s. There’s an intricate system of ideological hurdles candidates must leap to become serious Republican contenders.

Enter Donald Trump. Trump wants to be president, so he’s agreed to say whatever things people are supposed to say when they want to become a Republican candidate, but for him this is a question of memorizing his lines. He does not give two shits about the moral piety Ted Cruz performs so enthusiastically (and creepily). Trump follows a different higher code: profit. He’s evil, but he’s Lawful Evil. He will reliably and predictably do what’s most profitable for himself, unless he trips up over his own vanity and pettiness (which, to be fair, he does often).

Trump also operates in a very different environment from the one the Washington insiders are used to. Any New York developer who walked around mouthing the kind of prayerful pap Ted Cruz is constantly spouting would be laughed right out of the Peter Luger Steak House. Trump wouldn’t commit to moving his clothing factories to the U.S. or to not employing immigrant workers, both of which he was asked to do at the debate, simply because he’s not about to lose money just to prove a point.

On social issues, too, Trump doesn’t fit the GOP mold. He’s a sexist, yes, but his sexism doesn’t take the moralizing, condescending form we’re using to hearing from the Christian right. He doesn’t want to shut down Planned Parenthood or impose abstinence education, whatever positions he’s claiming to take today. For Trump, sexism is commercial. He just wants to treat women like sexual objects who are here for his gratification, that’s all. Until last year, he owned the Miss USA pageant. He likes to have a good time. Who among us has wondered how many abortions Donald Trump has paid for over the course of his career?

Trump says in public what so many right-wing evangelical leaders struggle to keep private. He shops for supermodels and objectifies his own daughter while the “family values” right’s moral and spiritual leaders succumb to scandal after meth-fueled sex scandal.

Trump’s antiabortion positions, like many of his ideological positions, are about playing ball with the Republican Party, pure and simple. They’re strategic choices. To be clear, that doesn’t reduce the likelihood that they’ll result in terrible damage should he get into office, but all the same it’s important to see that this is a different form of sexism than the evangelicals are used to (at least in public), and they’re having a tough time adjusting. Nothing is going quite the way they expect it to, because the rules have changed.

The Republicans like to pretend they’ve always been the party of Christian soldiers marching off to war, when they’re not busy claiming they can’t possibly be racists because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. But the party’s taken a twisted path over the years, with its function shifting again and again. From its radical origins in the abolitionist movement and during Reconstruction, it became the party of Northern big business, fell deep under the paranoid spell of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and with Nixon’s “Southern strategy” traded its African American support for loyalty from racist whites, many of whom were drawn in further by the evangelical turn in the 1980s and 1990s.

As journalist Max Blumenthal showed through extensive research in his 2009 book Republican Gomorrah, the evangelical right’s rule over the party has always made for an uneasy balance for the party’s less ideologically driven elements, like business and even the military. Blumenthal opens his study with a warning from a Republican who would find himself ill at ease in today’s GOP: Dwight D. Eisenhower, who cautioned against a strain of extremism in the party that he feared appealed to those who want “freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions” of democracy.

Today’s Republican Party has the job of holding together a set of constituencies that aren’t always a great fit: Wall Street and the Business Brads, the Religious Right, the military-industrial complex, the more general corporate and small-business layer, and the openly white-supremacist far right fringe. Trump’s base lies with the Business Brads and the far right. As for Wall Street and the big manufacturers, The Economist voiced their fears succinctly: “He is so unpredictable that the thought of him anywhere near high office is terrifying. He must be stopped.”

For this reason, it’s quite possible that, should Trump win the nomination, a good chunk of the Republicans’ share of the ruling elite might well defect to the Democratic side and support Hillary Clinton, a pragmatic neoliberal who is committed to defending the interests of U.S. corporations at home and abroad, as her tenure as Secretary of State demonstrated all too well.

Their fear is justified. For those of us who are on the left and in marginalized groups, the specter of a Trump presidency holds fears of violence and persecution. But for the rich, there’s fear too: fear of a chaotic, unstable business environment, given the instability of Trump’s policy platform and, perhaps even more significantly, the unpredictable violence and extremism of his racist, xenophobic far-right supporters.

“Fascism” is a word the mainstream U.S. media is very hesitant to throw around (unlike the left, which uses it far too often and with too little precision) — but when the leading Republican candidate refuses to distance himself from the Ku Klux Klan, retweets Mussolini quotes, and has supporters who cite him as justification for hate crimes, it’s hard to get around it.

Trump’s support base and ideology aren’t solid enough to fully meet the definition of fascism yet, but, as Jennifer Roesch points out in Jacobin, “While these elements are not organized into anything like a disciplined fighting force that could serve as the basis for a fascist movement, they do pose a real threat.” They certainly fit comfortably into what the historian Richard Hofstadter called in 1963 the “paranoid style in American politics,” full of persecution fantasies and grandiosity. Hofstadter cautions that this style isn’t necessarily fascist, though it is “a common ingredient of fascism, and of frustrated nationalisms,” and urges U.S. readers not to try to plug simplistic World War II analogies into a very different political matrix. But he tells us we shouldn’t shrug off the possibility either, in a passage that could have been written in 2016:

“In a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private purposes, it is at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal, active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

Trump’s candidacy has exposed just how wide the gap has become between the Republican Party orthodoxy and its base. Yesterday’s power struggles, between Mitt Romney denouncing Trump on live television and the strange spectacle of the Fox News debate, are more evidence of a rupture from which the party might not recover–even as the Democrats struggle to hold onto their own base, which they’ve alienated with corporate-friendly, carceral domestic policy and endless war abroad.

It’s probably too much to hope for the demise of both parties and a total breakdown of the two-party deadlock that’s ruled Washington for too long — but it seems that, in the 2016 presidential race, anything can happen.

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